Gold! Gold! Gold! Newspaper headlines across the US screamed of gold and riches from the Yukon. It was the summer of 1897 and the US was in the middle of an economic recession. Bold-print claims of easy riches filled the imaginations of people across the United States.
Inspired by dreams of gold, people sold all their belongings to head north to the Yukon. Men poured into Seattle and other port cities on the West Coast. Ships, packed with men and supplies, embarked on the great voyage northward. The ships steamed up the Canadian coastline to the Alaskan towns of Skagway and Dyea, and more than 100,000 people made the journey.
Skagway and Dyea became bustling boomtowns as frantic gold seekers prepared for the long trek ahead. In order to cross into the Yukon, people were required by Canadian Authorities to have a one-year’s supply of provisions. A year’s supply usually amounted to over one thousand pounds of food and gear, and would have to be transported 550 miles to the gold fields in Dawson city.
It was winter by the time most people were ready to make the journey up the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. The freezing temperatures, snow, and ice made the journey through the mountains extremely difficult. The going was slow as each man had to make multiple trips back and forth along the trail to bring the required supplies. Some men used horses to help bring supplies up the steep and jagged trail, which caused many of the horses to collapse due to the excessive load. Over 3,000 horses died on one particularly difficult part of the trail, and is now known as Dead Horse Gulch.
The Chilkoot and White Pass trails are about 35 miles long, but it took the men around three months to pack all their supplies up the trails to the shores of lake Bennet. For some, the visions of gold had begun to fade. Many of the men, discouraged by the difficulties, lost hope and turned back. Some died from exposure to the cold, sickness, starvation and suicide.
For those that did make it up the Chilkoot and White Pass trails, another great challenge was ahead; they had to build boats and travel over 500 miles down the river to the gold fields in Dawson City. When the ice finally melted in spring of 1898, hundreds of boats pushed off to make the journey. The hand-constructed boats were weighed down with men and supplies. Many of the boats capsized or were split open on rocks as they bumped and splashed through rough sections along the river. Men plunged into the icy waters and precious supplies, that had been so difficult to carry up the trails, were destroyed. Many more men lost their lives along the dangerous river passage to Dawson City.
Of the 100,000 people that started the journey, only 30,000 made it all the way to Dawson City, and only a handful of the 30,000 found enough gold to become rich. After months of arduous travel, gold seekers found that most of the gold-rich land around Bonanza Creek had already been claimed. And when the men finally found a place to dig, the work was back-breaking.
After clearing the first twelve inches of top-soil, the ground was frozen solid. Men built massive fires in an attempt to thaw the permafrost. Wood had to be cut and hauled to feed the fires. Men shoveled out sludge and chipped through rock. They piled up mounds of dirt and rock that would later be shoveled into sluice boxes. Only occasionally did the sluice box reveal tiny yellow specs of precious metal. After months of toil, all the digging revealed that there was no gold of value to be found; the work was difficult and heart-breaking.
In August of 1898, most of the gold seekers headed home in low spirits. They had spent nearly a year of their lives and perhaps all of their money in hopes of finding gold. While it is easy to look back and discover their folly, it is hard to blame them for taking a chance. They set out with dreams of gold and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.